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Hot heat in Chicago

Scott Bradfield revels in a new biography of a jazz legend
Louis Armstrong: an extravagant life by Laurence Bergreen, HarperCollins, pounds 25

Louis Armstrong, gravel-throated trumpeter and vocalist, generated what musicians refer to as "hot heat". He was loud. He played just ahead of tempo. And he never let up for a moment. A life-long devotee of both marijuana and laxatives, Armstrong considered "blasting" more than just a way of making music. It meant taking every available opportunity to let it all out.

Born on 4 August 1901, Armstrong was raised in the notorious Storyville section of New Orleans, where music had to be loud if it was going to be heard at all. His mother was a prostitute; his father ran off before he was born; and about the only thing Armstrong could ever count on was his own high energy and good humour. At a time when most of his male contemporaries were growing up to become either gangsters or pimps, Armstrong quit school at 11 to drive a junk car by day and a coal cart by night. And in a city bubbling over with this new thing called jazz, he listened to the likes of Buddy Bolden at the Funky Butt Hall, and taught himself to play on borrowed instruments.

Before "bebop" lent a too-serious air to the proceedings, jazz was basically whorehouse music - hard, humming, even a little lewd. After a four-year stint in reform school for firing off a pistol on New Year's Eve, Armstrong made his name with a song called "Take Your Finger Outta Katie's Ass", which he sang while performing his own version of the Shimmy. Then, when the Mayor of New Orleans closed Storyville down in 1917, Armstrong joined the diaspora of musicians to Chicago, and taught people up North the meaning of the word "scat" in such songs as "Heebie Jeebies" and "Gut Bucket Blues."

Because Armstrong preferred having a good time to making money, he was always in need of a guiding hand to keep him on the straight and narrow. In Chicago, this hand belonged to his second wife, Lil Hardin, a classically- trained pianist who billed Louis as "The World's Greatest Trumpet Player", and managed to persuade local journalists that it was true. Through Lil, Armstrong accepted a series of recording contracts from Okeh, a newly- launched producer of so-called "race-records", and, with the help of Kid Ory on trombone, Louis Armstrong and the Hot Five, began generating one recorded hit after another, thus providing Woody Allen with enough material for several motion picture sound-tracks.

Armstrong's baptismal certificate identified him as niger, illegitimus, and like many of life's strays, Louis learned to make up his own family as he went along. He consorted freely with prostitutes, gangsters, bootleggers and even white movie stars (though none of the latter invited him into their homes), and despite the fact that Armstrong rarely had anything bad to say about anybody, he suffered more than his share of racism from both sides of the tracks. Branded as "uppity" by southern DJs because he toured the country with a mixed-race band, and as an "Uncle Tom" by Miles Davis and Dizzy Gillespie for being more popular with white audiences than they were, Armstrong never let anybody dissuade him from his chosen mission - playing as much music as possible to anybody who would listen. "That horn ain't prejudiced," Armstrong once claimed. "A note's a note in any language."

Known as "Satchmo" after his nickname "Satchelmouth" was mis-reported by a British journalist, Armstrong went on to become America's most popular black entertainer. As a result, the true genius of his work is often overlooked in favour of his later, "feel-good" songs, such as "What a Wonderful World" and "Hello, Dolly." Laurence Bergreen's excellent new biography, however, should correct all the old false impressions, because it's one of those rare works of jazz scholarship not designed exclusively for highbrows and buffs. Instead, it depicts Armstrong and his music as they really were - irresistible fun, and translatable into any language. With excellent pocket biographies of everyone, from Armstrong's thuggish manager, Joe Glaser, to his brilliant contemporary, Bix Beiderbeck (who produced on his own trumpet, incidentally, what was known as "cool heat"), An Extravagant Life is readable, entertaining and culturally astute. In other words, you don't have to know jazz to enjoy it. But once you've finished reading it, the music will definitely get you. Just you wait.